Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, aka “The Baron of the Bluegrass”

From Chapter 3: A New Direction

Thanksgiving weekend in Lexington went by in a blur, with two practices on Thursday, two on Friday, two on Saturday. It was eat, sleep, and practice basketball. The only break in the routine came after Sunday-morning practice because Coach Rupp had an afternoon television program.

On Thanksgiving Day—the first he’d spent away from family in his twenty-one years—student manager Mike Harreld called home, looking for a little sympathy. Instead of Sympathy Central he’d reached the Owensboro chapter of the Big Blue Nation, where the university fight song was a sacred hymn and Go Big Blue the daily liturgy. His mother asked a few perfunctory questions about his well-being—how was he feeling (okay), if he’d had a turkey dinner (he hadn’t)—but the rest of the household, as basketball crazy as big brother, had larger concerns. “What about it, Mike,” his dad asked, “the team going to be any good this year, or what?” On that particular Thanksgiving night in 1965, he honestly didn’t know. On that particular night he would have given better odds on TV’s talking horse, Mr. Ed, winning the Kentucky Derby than this team making it to the Final Four.

Practices that day had been like a root canal. Coach Rupp had calmed down about 90 percent overnight, but his level of agitation would have driven most sentient mortals to the emergency room or at least a tranquilizing sedative. Conditioning wasn’t a factor (the team had spent preseason doing wind sprints), but patience was. Rupp had the team run the same play over and over and over. When he spotted a problem, he’d yell, “No—you’re supposed to plant your foot here and turn like this!” In demonstration mode Rupp moved with all the grace of an elephant trying to toe dance. “You’ve got to execute to make it work.” Looks were exchanged, but nobody laughed. In an Adolph Rupp practice, nobody ever laughed.

In the second Thanksgiving Day practice, he was working on a different play but with the same mind-numbing repetition. Again and again Louie Dampier came off a Larry Conley pick at the top of the key and shot a nineteen-foot jumper. Twenty times he shot; fifteen times it was nothing but net (the man could shoot the basketball). Adolph went into one of his teaching demos, something about Conley’s feet not being in the right place. “All right,” he said, stomping back to the sideline. “Run it again, only this time let’s put it in the basket.”

. . .

Conley and Kron weren’t concerned about who scored the points as long as Kentucky got the W. “They left their egos at the door,” said Jaracz. “They wanted everybody to be special.” It was infectious. When you’re open, you get the ball. When you’re double-teamed, you hit the guy left open. If there’d been a column on the stat sheet that day for dribbles, it would have been nearly empty.

When things started to click that Thanksgiving weekend, it was so sudden and so unexpected it was like old Archimedes running naked into the street after solving a vexing scientific problem shouting, “Eureka, I have found it!” By Sunday Mike (Slim) had an answer to his dad’s question. The 1965–66 Kentucky Wildcats had endured seven of the most grueling practices ever. They came out on the other end of that weekend a different team. Nobody had called them that so far, but Rupp’s Runts had arrived.

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